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Authors: Janet Kagan

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Hellspark

BOOK: Hellspark
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Hellspark

Janet Kagan

1988

v1.1 September 2003

EBook Design Group digital back-up edition v1, April 22, 2003

ISBN: 0-812-54275-4

Contents

Prologue: Lassti

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen
This one’s for

Eileen Enquist, Lincoln Park Volunteer Hose Company No. 2, Bob Lippman, Warren LeMay, Tom Cleary, and

Danny ???, David G. Hartwell, and Rick Sternbach

—all of whom came to the rescue—

THANK YOU ALL! and for

Susan and Gardner, fellow alumni of the hottest writers’ workshop in the history of sf; Chris, who had the “unique perspective;”

and Ricky, as always—with love

Sometimes I think if it wasn’t for the words, Corporal, I should be very given to talking. There’s things

To be said which would surprise us if we ever said them.


Christopher Fry, A Sleep of Prisoners

A Note on Orthography:

I have chosen to follow GalLing’ usage: italicizing the term layli-layli calulan and capitalizing it only when it begins a sentence. This should serve as a constant reminder that what appears to be
Page 1

a name is rather a designation.

Layli-layli calulan’s name is unknown to any but a very few of her most trusted intimates. And her world of origin bears the designation (not the name) , meaning (very roughly) both Y

“sound of strength” and “source of strength.”

Again following GalLing’ usage, I do not capitalize the Jenji title “swift—” except where it begins a sentence.

—MLL, ed.

Prologue: Lassti

S

OUTH OF BASE camp, a daisy-clipper skimmed through the flashwood, buffeting the undergrowth into a brilliant display of light. Its beauty was lost on swift-Kalat twis Jalakat. The dazzle was merely one more distraction that might prevent him from finding some trace of Oloitokitok, the survey team’s physicist—he had been missing for two days now.

Swift-Kalat, a small slender man with a ruddy complexion and, normally, an easygoing temperament, punched the daisy-clipper’s comtab as if it were to blame for Oloitokitok’s disappearance. The weighty silver bracelets that on his homeworld of Jenje would have chimed his status here clashed and jangled.

The sound only served to remind him that such expertise was useless in the situation he faced, and he jammed the bracelets almost to his elbows to silence them. When he addressed himself to base camp, his voice was clipped with exhaustion and anger.

“Swift-Kalat and Megeve,” he began, identifying himself and his companion, “we have completed the search of sector four.” He paused to choose his words with care. In his own language, he would have had no hesitation; his own language would have included in any statement the warning that he was neither suited to this task nor physically reliable because of his weariness. In GalLing’, he was unable to speak with such accuracy. He found himself limited to saying: “We’ve seen nothing we are able to interpret as an indication of Oloitokitok’s presence.”

His eyes flicked to the right, seeking a denial from Timosie Megeve, the Maldeneantine who piloted, but it was as futile as asking the loan of a Bluesippan’s knife.

He received only a glare of anger and frustration.

“Nothing in sector four. Acknowledged.” The answering voice was low and weary, despite its careful control: it was that of layli-layli calulan

, the team’s physician—and Oloitokitok’s wife. She went on, “Dyxte says there’s another storm, a bad one, coming up fast in your area. Return to base and get some rest.”

The small screen on the pilot’s side lit to show the projected path of the storm. Frowning at it, Timosie Megeve opened his mouth as if to voice an objection, but before he could even begin, layli-layli added, “Doctor’s orders.”

“Acknowledged,” said swift-Kalat wearily. He thumbed the comtab off and closed his eyes.

“She’s right, I suppose,” said Megeve. “We’ve been searching for nearly twenty hours.” He ran a cream-colored hand through a tangle of gray curls, dropped it to his thigh, and stared at it unseeing.

“We’re both so tired we’d likely miss a drab-death’s-eye if somebody dropped it into our laps.—And if we miss something we should spot, we’re worse than useless.”

What Megeve spoke was true, swift-Kalat knew, but he also knew that rest would not come easily:

even Oloitokitok’s disappearance could not drive the sprookjes from his mind.

Megeve shifted forward, glared at the instrument panel, then thrust out a hand to tap a nail against an indicator. He said something in his own language that was clearly a curse and tapped it again before returning to GalLing’. “One equipment failure after another,” he said, still
Page 2

growling. “This wouldn’t have happened if that transceiver hadn’t failed on us.”

“This wouldn’t have happened if Tinling Alfvaen had been here,” swift-Kalat countered, surprised to

find that the statement approached the proper degree of reliability even in GalLing’.

“Who?—Oh, your serendipitist friend.” With a second disgusted snort, Megeve gave up on the indicator and guided the daisy-clipper forward, following the snaky curve of the river back to base camp.

“Maybe, maybe not. A serendipitist isn’t all-seeing, you know.”

Swift-Kalat made no response, but the thought worried him further.

Allowing three months for the letter he’d sent with the last supply ship to reach Alfvaen and another for Alfvaen to act on it, the polyglot he’d requested was at least four months overdue.

Perhaps he had misjudged—not Alfvaen—but Alfvaen’s culture, which was so alien to him. Perhaps her custom prevented her from assisting him. Swift-Kalat had worked with people of differing cultures long enough to be aware that one culture’s truth was not necessarily another’s.

He called from his memory the image of her smiling face with its exotic pale skin, sharp features, eyes a striking green. She was beautiful to him, but it was her eyes that held him always, even in memory: the fierceness of her eyes when she believed in something or someone. She would have believed the message he’d sent because had sent it. Even custom could not have prevented her from acting on it, as custom he would not have prevented him from aiding her were their situations reversed.

If not custom, then what had delayed her?

He formed the truth for himself: his real fear was for Alfvaen’s safety. Perhaps the disease she had contracted on Inumaru was more severe than she, or he, knew.

The shock of the discovery jerked him back to reality. To his added surprise, he found that Megeve had turned the daisy-clipper to a new heading.

“What is it? Can you see something?” Swift-Kalat looked out, forcing himself to alertness.

He saw only a small stream, still swollen from the noon storm. A lush growth of drunken dabblers bobbed and weaved in the rumbling water; at every surge their dead-black leaves came alight with veins of eye-burning amber, the precise shade and glare of an antique sodium light.

Beside them, smug erics danced, churning and whirring—each pale white leaf edged, each silver stem spined, with a harsh glitter of actinic blue. There was no sign of Oloitokitok. Blinking to clear his eyes, swift-Kalat turned to Megeve for explanation.

Megeve listened to a faint roll of thunder and said, “I make it twenty minutes before that storm hits here. That means we have enough time to reach your blind and change the tapes. There’s always a chance they may show some act of the sprookjes that the captain can credit as intelligent.”

It was a faint hope and both of them knew it, but swift-Kalat accepted it gratefully, and Megeve went on, “I know you’re concerned about the sprookjes. So was— —Oloitokitok.”

is

Despite the immediate correction, Megeve’s use of the past tense chilled swift-Kalat. GalLing’

was an artificial language and it did not have the same accountability as Jenji, but swift-Kalat still reacted sharply when someone misspoke in such a matter.

It affected Megeve almost as strongly. He and Oloitokitok had been close companions since the beginning of the survey. He took a deep breath and went on, “Oloitokitok wants to prove their sentience as much as you—and he’s bought them a reprieve. Kejesli won’t send his status report while a member of the team is missing. I only wish it hadn’t happened this way.”

Megeve turned the daisy-clipper across country, threading it through the flashwood, where the turbulence of its wash whipped the Shante damasks from pure white to ripples of
Page 3

silver and stirred the blue-monks mistily alight. To their right, a row of smoldering pines went from black to the dull red glow of embers that had earned them their name. As the craft rose to avoid a deadly Eilo’s-kiss, swift-Kalat pointed to a vast, gaunt stand of lightning rods, black and limbless spikes that rose to astonishing heights.

“About thirty meters to the right of that,” he said.

Megeve brought the daisy-clipper to a hovering stop in the small patch of flashgrass swift-Kalat indicated and asked, “Shall I go in closer, or will that disturb your wildlife?”

“You wait here,” responded swift-Kalat, “I’ll be quick.” He folded back the transparent membrane, but was stopped by Megeve, who said, “Remember? We’re back to Extraordinary Precautions.”

Swift-Kalat had indeed forgotten. To lose a team member this late in a preliminary survey implied a danger that had not been catalogued. Until Oloitokitok was found, the team was to take the same

precautions they had their first few months on Lassti.

The first and foremost of those precautions was to seal his 2nd skin. He popped his epaulets to draw out his hood and gloves, laying them across his knees. Once the epaulets were closed, he shook the hood open and coiled his glossy black braid into it; pulling it tight over his head, he ran a finger about his neck to seal it. Even where there was no need for life support canisters, the habit remained; gloves came second because they were clumsy enough to make sealing the hood difficult.

As Megeve double-checked the seams for him, swift-Kalat found himself wondering how much good

Oloitokitok’s 2nd skin might be doing him. Even a carefully sealed 2nd skin was no proof against electric shock—and shock was Lassti’s major hazard.

“Sealed,” Megeve pronounced.

Swift-Kalat thanked him and slid the few feet to the ground, buffeted at a slight slant by the daisy-clipper’s ground effect. Around his ankles, flashgrass whipped violently to and fro.

Like so many of

Lassti’s plants, it tapped energy from motion piezoelectrically, discharging any excess as alternating flickers of vivid green and white light. Swift-Kalat paused a moment to tune his hood, shielding his eyes from the ever-increasing dazzle the oncoming storm winds raised within the flashwood, and then plunged into its riot of light.

He pushed through a stand of solemnly chiding tick-ticks, thinking as he did so that it was too bad the

2nd skins MGE supplied its employees weren’t sophisticated enough to damp his other senses to this world as well. Squat hilarities cackled, competing noisily with the tick-ticks for the attention of a swarm of vikries, Lassti’s version of the bumblebee.

Some hundred yards in, he reached the clearing where he had erected his blind. Here, flames-of-Veschke and penny-Jannisett unfurled their deep red and copper leaves. Both species used the more conventional method of photosynthesis, and against the storm-brought brilliance of the background, they looked almost black—and deeply restful. He breathed a sigh of relief at the quiet.

And then stopped in his tracks. The clearing should not have been so still, even in the absence of thunder or roar of rain.

The first time the survey team had stepped into this clearing, those small, golden-furred creatures had shrieked out. Oloitokitok had shrieked back at them, startling everyone as much as the creatures themselves had. Laughing, but defiant, Oloitokitok had explained that in his tongue they seemed to be saying, “I don’t believe it! Not for a minute!”

“I couldn’t let it pass without comment,” he had added. “I had to tell them to believe it.”

Page 4

On each subsequent visit swift-Kalat had paid to the blind, no matter what precautions he had taken, the flock of golden scoffers—for so they’d become in the surveyors’ common tongue—had shrieked out their incredulity at his presence.

Now, there was no flash and beat of wings, no scornful shrilling. The only sound was the distant chiding and cackling of plants.

In the uncanny stillness, a sudden whiplike crack against his ankle made swift-Kalat start. He looked down to find he had brushed against a small blue-striped zap-me. The zap-me fed on electricity and obtained it by startling small animals that used a charge for defense. Swift-Kalat did not respond in the desired manner: he gave no shocks. As he watched, the plant patiently reset its whip-tendril to await a creature that would.

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